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Land purchase puts Suncoast Parkway on the road

Only one piece of land was holding up construction of the Suncoast Parkway, the $507.5-million toll road that will stretch through three counties.

Last week, the Florida Department of Transportation got its missing link, though it didn't come cheap.

The DOT agreed to pay Tampa eye surgeon Raymond Agia $8.95-million for 72 acres through his parcel north of Lutz-Lake Fern Road, as well as an additional 51 acres just east of the right of way.

The deal ended an eight-year dispute over the Suncoast Parkway's route through Hillsborough County. And while the price seems high _ at $72,177 an acre, it was almost three times the price paid last year for 49 acres north of Lutz-Lake Fern _ state officials said it was far lower than early projections of as much as $17-million.

"What we settled for was very fair," said Jim Ely, district secretary for Florida's Turnpike.

Acquiring the land was not without some intrigue and controversy.

In 1979, Agia bought 328 acres north of Lutz-Lake Fern Road, west of what is now VillaRosa, and hoped to someday develop the land, said his attorney, Mike Gaines. In 1990, Agia applied to rezone the property for 303 homes.

But at the same time, the developers of Cheval, south of Agia's land, had already worked with the DOT to allow an overpass for the parkway to cut through Cheval. That alignment would point the toll road straight through the center of Agia's land.

Agia was denied the rezoning, but he sued and prevailed in court in 1992. But by that time, Gaines said, the DOT had begun public hearings on the Suncoast Parkway, dooming his client's project before it even started.

"As a practical matter, it didn't help him any at that point to market homes there," Gaines said. "His opportunity to build was shot."

"They didn't tell anybody what they were doing," he added.

But transportation officials and Cheval developers deny any secret deals.

"Nothing that the DOT does is a secret," said Kevin Thibault, production director for Florida's Turnpike district. "We had several meetings, and they had an opportunity to come to them."

Cheval developer and Profundo Inc. president Jim Stackpoole said that Agia had applied for the rezoning several months after construction on the Cheval golf course and one of the home villages had begun. Agia also asked the county to change the road's right of way either to the western or eastern portions of his land, which would have destroyed two golf holes and wasted $12-million in infrastructure investments, Stackpoole said.

"He came in almost after the fact," Stackpoole said. "We have records in our files that show that we were already under construction."

Because the western portion of Agia's land is dominated by wetlands, running the Suncoast Parkway through the center of the property was the best alternative, Thibault said.

As required by state law, the DOT also will have to pay $961,000 to Agia's attorneys.

Groundbreaking for the Suncoast Parkway is scheduled for July. Once completed, the road will stretch 42 miles north from the Veterans Expressway near Van Dyke Road through Pasco and Hernando counties.

If you have a story about Lutz, call 226-3469.